Laos: Disastrous Floods on the Mekong


E.C. Chapman

When devastating storms and floods struck Western Europe in September, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair quickly attributed the cause to global warming. Perhaps he had partly in mind the Hague Conference on Climate Change, which ultimately proved inconclusive. But in September and October devastating floods struck all four Lower Mekong countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), with major loss of property and overall loss of more than 800 lives, particularly in central and southern Cambodia and in the adjoining Mekong delta. In November the flood receded, but the last of the floodwaters were expected to remain in parts of the delta until late December.

Floods are an annual natural hazard between August and October in parts of the Lower Mekong, commonly beginning with limited flooding near Savannakhet and Pakse in southern Laos. This year however, the monsoon season began 6-8 weeks early. Heavy rain fell in northern Laos and adjoining areas of southwest China early in July, causing water levels to rise rapidly in the Mekong upstream from Vientiane. They remained above the long-term average throughout the next two months. In consequence, by late August the mainstream and its tributaries in southern Laos were already at bank-full stage when successive tropical storms crossed the South China Sea, dumping massive quantities of rain on central Vietnam, in neighbouring provinces of Cambodia and in the Mekong delta.

By early October a vast inland sea as much as 2.0 m deep extended across the Cambodia-Vietnam border, submerging roads, causing protective dykes to collapse and isolating villages in the worst-affected provinces (An Giang and Dong Thap, bordering Cambodia, and Tien Giang on the western margin of Ho Chi Minh City). In October it was described as the ‘worst flood in southern Vietnam in more than 70 years’, or more cautiously, as ‘equal to the other major floods of the last 40 years: in 1961, 1978, 1991 and now in 2000’. Certainly, in terms of loss of life and property the 2000 flood was the worst experienced in southern Vietnam. More than 500 were drowned, of whom 80 per cent were children, and more than 500,000 families were said to need relief accommodation. Foreign assistance to Cambodia and Vietnam and emergency funding by the Government of Vietnam extended to many millions of dollars.

A number of questions were asked:

Had China’s two dams on the Lancang Jiang (Upper Mekong) in Yunnan (one completed and a second nearing completion) played some role in the early flooding?

Why was the Mekong 2000 flood so extensive in central Cambodia, on this occasion affecting provinces above and below Phnom Penh, and the city itself?

Did deforestation and other factors, such as recent increases in population in flood-prone areas, contribute significantly to the losses in Cambodia and in the delta?

Was climate change, particularly global warming, a significant factor?

If major flooding in the Lower Mekong is now likely to occur even more frequently than the ‘once in 10 years’ average since 1960, what flood mitigation strategies might be developed for implementation in Cambodia and the Mekong delta?

China’s dams can affect at most 2 per cent of the Mekong’s seasonal discharge; more than half the discharge was contributed by tributaries which rose in Laos. On the other hand, widespread deforestation in recent decades has greatly accelerated run-off; and migration to Dong Thap province has recently increased, often from areas where people are less familiar with flood conditions.

In October and November increased attention was given to strategies of flood mitigation, anticipating that major floods are likely to increase in frequency. So Vietnam is now talking of a policy for ‘Living with the Floods’: educating villagers in the delta to adopt a new cropping calendar; planning the construction of 2-storey schools in flood-prone villages; developing one or more ‘hospital ships’ to sail the canals; and the gradual redesign of villages, with dyke-defended housing, in four provinces which are most exposed to flood risk.

WATCHPOINT: Watch for exposure of the Lower Mekong to global warming, and further efforts at flood mitigation.


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